August 30, 2014

More Guidance from the NLRB on Social Media: When Must Employers Not Fire an Employee for an Offensive Facebook Post?

In a recent blog post, we addressed three Advice Memos issued by the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB or the “Board”) Division of Advice, which provided useful guidance on the types of social media conduct that do not enjoy protection under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). On August 18, 2011, not long after the publication of those Advice Memos, the NLRB’s General Counsel issued a lengthy memorandum to all Regional Directors that summarizes the Board’s resolution of more than one dozen “social media cases,” including the three cases discussed in our prior blog post. As a contrast to that post, this post will focus on the cases in the August 18, 2011, Memorandum where the General Counsel found that an employer’s discharge of an employee violated the NLRA. The August 18, 2011, Memorandum also provides useful guidance on social media policies, which are addressed below as well.

When Not to Fire an Employee Based on a Social Media Post

The August 18, 2011, Memorandum summarizes four cases that concluded that the employer’s discipline violated the NLRA. In a nutshell, these cases involved the termination of one or more employees based on the following social media conduct:

  • While preparing for a meeting with management, an employee asked coworkers on her Facebook page for their reaction to another employee’s complaints about work quality and staffing levels at the employer;
  • An employee complained on her Facebook page about her supervisor’s refusal to permit a union representative to assist her in responding to a customer complaint about the employee;
  • A salesmen at a car dealership criticized on his Facebook page the dealership’s handling of a sales event intended to promote a new car model and posted mildly mocking photographs that included his coworkers;
  • Employees posted on Facebook about the employer’s failure to withhold state income taxes, resulting in the employees’ receiving payment demands from state tax authorities.

In all of these cases, employees posted on their own Facebook page, on their own time, and using their own equipment.

When viewed as a group, these cases have a common thread that provides substantial insight into how the Board analyzes social media cases. Most importantly, the subject matter of each of these posts related to the terms and conditions of employment, the exercise of rights conferred by the NLRA, or other matters traditionally considered “protected activity” under the Boards’ precedent. The topics included: (a) preparation for a discussion with management about employees’ job performance and the employer’s staffing levels; (b) the right in a unionized workplace to union representation during an investigatory interview by the employer; (c) conduct by the employer (a sales event) that could have an impact on employees’ compensation (their sales commissions); and (d) the employer’s administration of income tax withholdings.

Of equal significance, in each of these situations, the General Counsel concluded that employees were collaborating, otherwise known as “concerted activity.” In the first case, the employee was seeking assistance from coworkers in preparation for a discussion with management. In the second case, the employee was discussing supervisory actions with coworkers who were her Facebook friends. In the third case, the employee was expressing the sentiment of his coworkers about the sales event. In the fourth case, employees were sharing concerns about the employer’s failure to withhold state income taxes. None of these cases could be said to involve individual gripes.

While the fulcrum of these cases is the General Counsel’s determination that the disciplined employees were discussing protected subject matters and doing so in concert with their coworkers, there is one other common thread that can help employers weigh risks when deciding whether an employee’s social media post justifies discipline. In each of the cases, the offending Facebook post was either the culmination of an on-going dispute with the employer or the continuation of a pre-existing conversation among employees. In contrast to these fact patterns, the Facebook posts discussed in our previous blog entry and upon which the Division of Advice relied to justify discipline were relatively spontaneous and had no real history behind them.

Profanity Generally Will Not Justify Discipline for Protected Concerted Activity

According to the General Counsel, the offending Facebook posts in these cases included “swearing and/or sarcasm,” use of a “short-hand expletive,” and references to management personnel as an “asshole” and a “scumbag.” Nonetheless, in each case, the General Counsel concluded that the employer’s termination violated the NLRA.

The General Counsel’s analysis in these cases seems to give employees a license to curse. In finding that an employee did not lose the NLRA’s protections after calling her supervisor a “scumbag,” the General Counsel relied on the following facts: (a) “the Facebook posts did not interrupt the work of any employee because they occurred outside the workplace and during nonworking time;” (b) “the comments were made during an online employee discussion on supervisory action;” (c) “the name-calling was not accompanied by verbal or physical threats;” (d) “the Board has found more egregious name-calling protected;” and (e) “the employee’s Facebook postings were provoked by the supervisor’s unlawful” conduct.

In social media cases, the first three or four factors listed above typically will be present. Thus, the Board effectively is telling employers that they must have a thicker skin when it comes to employees’ raunchy social media posts.

Disclaimers and Carefully Crafted Policies Are Critical

Throughout the August 18, 2011, Memorandum, the General Counsel identified social media policy provisions that the General Counsel deemed overbroad and in violation of the NLRA. At first blush, these determinations are portentous for employers because employers routinely include the challenged provisions in their social media policy. However, the August 18, 2011, Memorandum suggests — at least implicitly — how employers can retain these commonly used policy provisions without running afoul of the NLRA.

The list of policy provisions found to be overbroad is lengthy but worthy of repetition. The list includes the following:

  1. Inappropriate Discussions: Prohibition against “inappropriate discussions about the company, management, and/or coworkers;”
  2. Defamation: Prohibition on any social media post that “constitutes embarrassment, harassment or defamation of the [company] or of any [company] employee, officer, board member, representative, or staff member;”
  3. Disparagement: Prohibition against “employees making disparaging comments when discussing the company or the employee’s superiors, coworkers and/or competitors;”
  4. Privacy: Prohibition on “revealing, including through the use of photographs, personal information regarding coworkers, company clients, partners, or customers without their consent;”
  5. Confidentiality: Prohibition on “disclosing inappropriate or sensitive information about the Employer;”
  6. Contact Information: Prohibition on “using the company name, address, or [related] information on [employees’] personal profiles;”
  7. Logo: Prohibition on using “the Employer’s logos and photographs of the Employer’s store, brand, or product, without written authorization;”
  8. Photographs: Prohibition against “employees posting pictures of themselves in any media . . . which depict the Company in any way, including company uniform [or] corporate logo.”

Removing all of the prohibitions described above would eviscerate most social media policies. Fortunately, such drastic action does not appear to be necessary.

In finding these rules unlawful, the General Counsel emphasized not only their overbreadth (i.e., “the [rules] utilized broad terms that would commonly apply to protected criticism of . . . terms and conditions of employment”), but also that “the rule[s] contained no limiting language to inform employees that [the rules] did not apply to Section 7 activity.” This italicized language suggests that the rules quoted above will not violate the NLRA as long as the policy contains a disclaimer which explicitly informs employees that the policy will not be construed or applied in a manner that improperly interferes with employees’ rights under Section 7 of the NLRA.

The General Counsel also provided some guidance for policy drafting by rejecting challenges to several other policy provisions. One upheld policy, for example, provided that “no employee could ever be pressured to ‘friend’ or otherwise connect with a coworker via social media.” The General Counsel reasoned that this policy was “sufficiently specific,” “clearly applied only to harassing conduct,” and could not be read to prohibit employees from friending for purposes of engaging in activity protected under the NLRA.

In a second example, the General Counsel approved of a policy that required employees to “maintain confidentiality about sensitive information” and to direct all media inquiries to the company’s public affairs office after stating that the employee was not authorized to comment. The General Counsel determined that this policy did not violate the NLRA because it was intended only “to ensure a consistent, controlled company message,” was not a blanket prohibition on all contact between employees and the media, and “did not convey the impression that employees could not speak out on the terms and conditions of their employment.”

These examples suggest that an employer can increase the likelihood that its social media policy will survive the NLRB’s scrutiny if the policy emphasizes the legitimate purposes that it seeks to achieve, such as protecting the employer’s good will and brand reputation. In addition, restrictions in the policy on employees’ social media conduct should, where practicable, be narrowly tailored to meet those legitimate objectives.

© 2011 Littler Mendelson.  All Rights Reserved.

Philip L. Gordon is the Chair of Littler Mendelson’s Privacy and Data Protection Practice Group. He has years of experience litigating privacy-based claims and counseling clients on all aspects of workplace privacy. He blogs at Littler’s Workplace Privacy Counsel, where this post originally appeared on August 22, 2011.

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